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Referee shortage continues into another winter sports season

The shortage is impacting youth, high school and even adult recreation sports in Minnesota and across the country.

MINNEAPOLIS — As the high school sports season changes from fall to winter later this month, the search continues for referees in all sports, ranging from volleyball to hockey to basketball. 

One national group estimates that at least 50,000 high school officials have stopped working games since the pandemic, a shortage that has impacted every state including Minnesota.

Dan Johnson, the former Hopkins athletic director who now serves as executive director of the Minnesota Interscholastic Athletic Administrators, said schools across the state have gotten creative with scheduling.

"We're moving off our traditional dates, maybe canceling some games that we can't find officials for. We're having a hard time scheduling," Johnson said. "It could change the amount of games a team gets in a year, because there just won't be enough officials to continue working."

Early in the pandemic and before the vaccine rolled out, concerns about COVID exposure led some officials to reconsider working games in-person. 

However, since then, Johnson — and many others — believe that poor treatment of the officials has deterred them from the profession.

"I think our shortage is directly tied to fan behavior and treatment of the officials. It's hard to say there's any justification for it because there isn't. It's gone over the top," Johnson said. "I think it's a huge frustration for officials. It is for everyone."

Still, Johnson encouraged younger people to pursue officiating, as a way to make some extra money and stay involved in athletics. He also praised St. Paul Public Schools for their newly created officiating course, which will hopefully put students into the refereeing pipeline. 

"We're trying to hold on to every official that we can," Johnson said. "It's a passion for people."

The referee shortage also impacts youth and adult recreation leagues. 

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, for example, is working hard to find refs, holding a training event on Tuesday for prospective basketball officials.

"Just trying to learn about the other side of basketball," said John Horton, an avid basketball player who attended the Tuesday night session. "Give it a shot. It's a good learning opportunity, and you might learn some skills that might translate to something else in the future."

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